Senate Acts On Legislative Reforms

James L. Seward

January 24, 2005

The New York State Senate has approved a list of reforms and rules changes, including a ban on empty seat voting, numerous reforms to make the committee process more open and efficient, increasing public forums, hearings and debate of proposed legislation and expanding the use of conference committees and achieving statewide access to televised Senate sessions, Senator James L. Seward said today.

"The Senate has approveda very broad package of reforms and rule changes that the Senate Task Force on Government Reform began developing last year and that we continued to review and discuss in a bipartisan fashion," Senator Seward said. "In the public’s eye, the ban on empty seat voting is important, but our changes go beyond that to reform the committee process, increase discussion of legislation, and to look at what steps we can take to incorporate new technologies that could make the Senate operate more efficiently."

The reforms and rules changesinclude a plan to ban empty seat voting, which represents an agreement between the Senate Majority and Minority. The rule change will require members to be in their seats to vote on bills that are placed on a "controversial" calendar. The controversial calendar includes every bill, with the exception of most local bills and others that the majority and minority agree are either technical in nature, routine and are generally not subject to debate. The Senate rules will still enable any senator to request that any bill be placed on the controversial calendar for debate and an individual vote by all members present in the chamber.

"Reforming the legislative process is a main priority of the Senate and we are now ready to move forward with procedural changes," Senator Frank Padavan (R-C, Bellerose), co-chair of the Senate Government Reform Task Force, said. "We are fulfilling a commitment we made last year to put forward a plan on many of the 'reforms' we've all been discussing. This is a positive step towards a more open and accountable state government."

"The need for our citizens to trust our democratic form of government is crucial and essential," Senator Dale M. Volker (R-C-I, Depew), co-chair of the Senate Government Reform Task Force, said. "The rule changes we will adopt today will help achieve an open and effective legislative process that is critical to maintaining citizens’ trust and support for our democratic system of government."

The reforms being taken up today by the Senate address most of the recommendations made by the Brennan Center.

In addition to the empty seat voting ban, the Senate will act on other changes and reforms, including the following:
The Senate will eliminate the party line vote and require members to vote individually on all bills before them.
This rules change will require members to cast their votes directly either through their personal attendance at committee meetings or, in extraordinary cases, by submitting to the committee chair a signed official committee voting sheet that indicates their approval or disapproval on each bill considered at that day’s committee meeting.
This rules change will require both a majority and minority report be prepared to accompany each bill reported from committee that includes additional information, including the committee’s action and recommendation and legislative history. This rule will assist citizens in gaining a better understanding of the legislative process as it affects individual legislation.
This reform will strictly limit Senate committee meetings held off the floor during session and encourage more regularly scheduled committee meetings so more members, and the public, can attend.
Senate policy will be formalized regarding the hiring and firing of committee staff by Senate committee chairs. This autonomy already exists, but this action will formalize the practice in the official Senate personnel policy.
Any member on a standing committee may call a public forum on an issue within the jurisdiction of the committee. Expenses related to the forum would be paid for by the conference of the member calling for it. Also, Senate committee chairs are encouraged to hold more public hearings on significant legislation.
The number of Majority and Minority members on Senate standing committees will be changed to increase Minority representation on committees.
- Reduce the number of committee assignments to no more than seven per member, where practicable. In an effort to implement this policy, two Senate standing committees were consolidated into other committees with similar responsibilities;
- Limit the Rules Committee’s ability to move legislation to the floor;
- Expand opportunities to petition bills from committee;
- Similar bills will be concentrated on committee agendas;
- Use the Rules Committee to expedite action on future rules changes;
- Expedited local bill and home rule process to help ensure that local bills are acted on earlier in the session, thus easing the end of session legislative logjam and reducing the number of messages of necessity.
Senators will have a total of four hours to discuss each bill being debated by the Senate.
> Eliminate majority leader’s "star;"
An existing Senate rule permits the majority leader to unilaterally block floor action on any bill by "starring" the legislation, even after that bill already has been approved by a standing committee and moved to the Senate floor. The Senate may not act on such bill until one day after the "star" is removed. The "star" has never been used by the current Majority Leader. This rule change will eliminate the ability of the majority leader to "star" a bill.
> Additional information required for message of necessity;
This rules change would require the sponsor of a bill subject to the message to explain and give additional information on the need for such a "message" to help the public better understand the nature of the emergency and the critical importance of speedy action on the legislation.
Encourage expanded use of joint conference committees on the budget and other legislation.
The Senate will examine expanding the broadcast of Senate sessions to a statewide audience by pursuing cable outlets throughout the state. This would enable more New Yorkers to view Senate proceedings currently available on cable television in the Capital Region.
In an effort to examine other voting reforms, Senator Bruno and Senate Minority Leader David Paterson have appointed members to a panel that will study the feasibility of utilizing new technology in the Senate chamber, to further improve the efficient operation of the Senate and provide greater openness and accountability.

The panel will be chaired by Senator James Wright (R-C-I, Watertown) and include Senator Stephen Saland (R-C, Poughkeepsie), Senator Kemp Hannon (R-C, Garden City), Senator Liz Krueger (D, Manhattan) and Senator David Valesky (D, Syracuse).

"While we couldn’t reach agreement on further reform proposals, we agreed to disagree on some issues, but, most importantly, we are making significant changes and we will have a continuing, open dialogue on reform and we can move forward with other business important to our state," Senator Bruno said.